This year, I’m spreading my highlights from a year of reading across two posts. The first piece focused on my favourite ‘recently published’ titles, while this second one puts the spotlight on the best ‘older’ books from my 2021 reading, most of which were written in the 20th century.
These are the backlisted books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post (in order of reading), but as before, you can find the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.
Subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined, this unsettling collection of Wharton’s Ghost Stories is a veritable treat. Characterised by the tensions between restraint and passion, respectability and impropriety, Wharton’s narratives are rooted in reality, with the ghostly chills mostly stemming from psychological factors. The fear of the unknown, the power of the imagination and the judicious use of supernatural imagery to unnerve the soul are all in evidence here. As one would expect with Wharton, the writing is first class and the characters brilliantly drawn, with sufficient depth and subtlety to appear fully convincing. A wonderfully chilling collection of tales, tapping into the dark side of American history and human relationships.
Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill
A thoughtful, beautifully-written rumination on love, loss, grief and the nature of pain, especially where our feelings for others are concerned. While staying at a writing retreat in Italy, Gaitskill is cajoled into adopting a scrawny, feral kitten, whom she names Gattino. Not long after Mary and her husband move house, Gattino mysteriously disappears, thereby reawakening various emotions, previously suppressed feelings of guilt surrounding the death of Gaitskill’s father. In many ways, Lost Cat is an exploration of the complexities of human emotion, of how we try to offer love to another individual (or animal), whether they are accepting of it or not. While the Daunt Books edition came out in 2020, this powerful extended essay first appeared in the Granta literary journal in 2009.
The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor
This loose re-working of the age-old fairy tale is another of Taylor’s marvellous ensemble pieces, very much in line novels such as A View of the Harbour and The Soul of Kindness, where the focus moves from one individual to another as their lives intertwine. The novel is set in Seething, a small seaside town in the early 1950s, and as ever with this author, the characters are brilliantly observed. What I love about this her work are the insights she brings to her characters’ inner lives, their thoughts and interactions with others, and how their experiences and preoccupations reveal themselves over time. There is a combination of depth, complexity and veracity to these individuals that makes them feel human, complete with emotions and motivations that remain relevant some seventy years after publication. Possibly underrated in the Taylor oeuvre, but for me it’s a gem.
Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden
This is a glorious book – an evocative story of nuns, misguided actions and, perhaps most significantly of all, repressed female desire. A small group of Anglican nuns set out to establish a new convent, high up in the Himalayan mountains, a place steeped in beauty and mystery. As the weeks go by, the Sisters begin to fall under the setting’s spell, surrounded by the heady atmosphere of disruption and beauty. Consequently, each Sister becomes obsessed with a particular passion, causing them to neglect their spirituality in favour of more personal desires. Tensions – both sexual and otherwise – abound in this sensual novel, stepped in lush visual imagery. In creating Black Narcissus, Godden has given us a rich exploration of the tensions between competing desires, one that also touches on the follies of colonialism in subtle and memorable ways. Highly recommended, even for devoted fans of the Powell and Pressburger film, such as myself!
Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel by William Trevor
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working my way through some of William Trevor’s novels – mostly the early ones with their notes of dark comedy and undeniable tragedy. Mrs Eckdorf is very much of a piece with his others from the 1970s, and is something of a bridge between The Boarding-House and The Children of Dynmouth, both of which I loved. The novel’s catalyst is the titular Mrs Eckdorf – a most annoying and invasive woman who has fashioned a career as a photographer, exploiting the lives of unfortunate individuals around the world, their existences touched by devastation. Once again, William Trevor proves himself a master of the tragicomedy, crafting a story that marries humour and poignancy in broadly equal measure.
Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns
There is something distinctly English about the world that Barbara Comyns portrays in this novel, a surreal eccentricity that could only be found within the England of old. Set in 1911, three years before the advent of the First World War, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead has all the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel: enchanting, innocent children, caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, typically with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-fact delivery that belies the horrors within. Another strikingly creative work from one of Britain’s most singular writers – a darkly humorous novel of great brilliance and originality with an allegorical nod to the First World War.
Chatterton Square by E. H. Young
Probably the richest, most satisfying entry in the British Library’s Women Writers series so far, Chatterton Square is a novel of contrasts, an exploration of lives – women’s lives in particular – in the run-up to the Second World War. On the surface, Chatterton appears to be a straightforward story of two neighbouring families – one relatively happy and functional, the other much more constrained. However, the degree of depth and nuance that Young brings to her portraits of the main characters makes it a particularly compelling read – more so than my description suggests. Set in Upper Radstowe’s Chatterton Square – a place modelled on Bristol’s Clifton – the novel features one of the most pompous characters I’ve encountered this year: Herbert Blackett, a conceited, self-absorbed puritan who considers himself vastly superior to his more relaxed neighbours.
The Island by Ana María Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)
Set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, The Island is a darkly evocative coming-of-age narrative with a creeping sense of oppression. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother (or ‘abuela’), Aunt Emilia and cousin Borja – not a situation she relishes. Matute excels in her depiction of Mallorca as an alluring yet malevolent setting, drawing on striking descriptions of natural world to reinforce the impression of danger. It’s a brutal and oppressive place, torn apart by familial tensions and longstanding political divisions. As this visceral novella draws to a close, Matia is left with few illusions about the adult world. The beloved fables and fairy tales of her childhood are revealed to be fallacies, contrasting starkly with the duplicity, betrayal and cruelty she sees being played out around her. A unsettling summer read.
The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff
During a trip to Bognor in the early 1930s, R. C. Sherriff was inspired to create a story centred on a fictional family by imagining their lives and, most importantly, their annual September holiday at the seaside resort. While this premise seems simple on the surface, the novel’s apparent simplicity is a key part of its magical charm. Here we have a story of small pleasures and triumphs, quiet hopes and ambitions, secret worries and fears – the illuminating moments in day-to-day life. By focusing on the minutiae of the everyday, Sheriff has crafted something remarkable – a novel that feels humane, compassionate and deeply affecting, where the reader can fully invest in the characters’ inner lives. This is a gem of a book, as charming and unassuming as one could hope for, a throwback perhaps to simpler, more modest times.
Passing by Nella Larsen
Larsen’s 1928 novella Quicksand – which was inspired by Larsen’s own background and life – tells the story of a young mixed-race woman searching for her place in society, lacking a sense of identity in a highly segregated world. In Passing (1929), Larsen takes these themes a step further by exploring the emotional, moral and societal implications of the act of ‘passing’, whereby a light-skinned mixed-race woman passes as white in a society divided by race. Central to Passing is a fascinating yet complex relationship between two middle-class women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry – both of whom are black but sufficiently light-skinned to pass as white, depending on their personal attitudes and circumstances. Passing is just as much an exploration of the complexities of female friendships as it is of race, touching on themes of desire, jealousy, loyalty, betrayal, victory and victimhood along the way. A superb book, fully deserving of its status as a classic of the Harlem Renaissance. I loved Rebecca Hall’s film adaptation too, currently steaming on Netflix.
Finally, a few books that almost made the cut – all very highly recommended indeed.
- Meeting in Positano – Goliarda Sapienza’s gorgeous novel of female friendship, set in the glamorous world of 1950s Italy.
- The Visitor – Maeve Brennan’s piercing novella of resentment, bitterness and the loneliness of isolation.
- Family Happiness – Laurie Colwin’s beautifully observed story of familial obligations and our need to be loved.
- Tea is So Intoxicating – Mary Essex’s delightfully amusing comedy on the pettiness of village life and the failure to recognise our own limitations.
- The Feast – Margaret Kennedy’s joyous novel, set in post-war Cornwall. Part morality tale and part family saga/social comedy, it’s an escapist delight!
All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead. Let’s hope it turns out to be significantly less stressful than the last two have been…